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Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame opens doors for ‘Catfish’

VICKSBURG – Just outside the Vicksburg Convention Center, themighty Mississippi River rolled on as barges, pushed by tugboats,wrestled with the swirling waters. Inside the Convention Center, acapacity crowd of 1,000 rubbed elbows and witnessed the inductionof eight new members to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

Brookhaven native Ralph “Catfish” Smith summed it up best. “Wow!What a celebration.”

Smith, an All-SEC tight end for the Ole Miss Rebels and aveteran of four professional teams, was seated next to the podiumbut the seven honorees to his left went ahead of him in thefour-hour extravaganza.

Also inducted Friday night was Smith’s teammate at Ole Miss,quarterback Glynn Griffing; plus Hinds Community College and LSUdefensive end Earl Leggett, Gulf Coast Community College footballplayer and coach George Sekul, MUW volleyball player andMississippi State coach Samye Johnson, amateur tennis champion andcoach Carolyn Henry of Crystal Springs and Coach T.B. Ellis andVerlon Biggs of Jackson State, both deceased.

On a royal night for athletic memories and hero worship, Smithexpressed humility for the honor bestowed upon him. “This award isfor my teammates, my coaches and my family.”

He said the award was dedicated to his 87-year-old mother,Gladys Stone.

Smith’s five grown children, Ralph Jr., Richard, Cameron, Sydneyand Stephany were present; plus his second wife, Greta; andstepdaughter Melanie. “I’ve been blessed with five beautifulgrandchildren.”

At BHS, Smith earned 15 letters. He was a standout in football,basketball, baseball and track. One of his high school teammateswas Lance Alworth, BHS Class of 1956. Alworth went to theUniversity of Arkansas where he earned All-America honors and helater signed with the San Diego Chargers, becoming a superstar ofthe old AFL.

Smith said he was contacted by former Brookhaven resident RodneyStokes last June, regarding his Hall of Fame selection. Stokes is aJackson Touchdown Club member and a member of the Hall of Fameselection committee.

Several of Smith’s Brookhaven friends made the journey toVicksburg for the ceremony. Alworth, who lives in Delmar, justnorth of San Diego, made the longest trip. A 1988 Mississippi Hallof Fame inductee, Alworth was swamped by autograph seekers andwell-wishers. Brown as a Brazil nut from countless days of eitherplaying golf or deepsea fishing from his yacht, Alworth appeared tobe in top physical condition.

“I wanted to make sure I got all of my friends here tonight, soI invited my best friend, Lance Alworth,” said Smith. “I want tothank Lance and his wife for being here.”

Smith said his high school days were filled with wonderfulmemories. “We were just one big happy family. Brookhaven was agreat place to live.”

Recruited by several SEC schools, Smith said he chose Ole Missbecause several of its former players had made the professionalranks. “The Pooles and Kinards had played pro ball. Ole Miss wasright for me. I thought it would be the best opportunity for me toplay pro ball.”

Smith played professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles,Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and the CFL’s TorontoArgonauts.

Griffing, from Culkin, Mississippi, threw several TD passes toSmith during their college years. It wasn’t until Friday night thathe realized they both had the same birthday, Dec. 1. He was born in1940 and Smith in 1939.

Griffing played for the New York Giants during his one-year procareer and gained gridiron wisdom from Y.A. Tittle and FrankGifford.

“Ralph, I’m glad to share this (honor) with you.” said Griffing.In 1962, he quarterbacked the Rebels to a 17-13 win over Arkansasin the 1963 Sugar Bowl. It completed a perfect season for OleMiss.

The Central Mississippi Chapter of the the National FootballFoundation and Hall of Fame presented several awards Friday night.Lawrence County native Dr. Roderick Paige, the United StatesSecretary of Education, received the Distinguished AmericanAward.

Paige, who was Superintendent of Education for the Houston,Texas, school district, before his appointment by President GeorgeW. Bush, once served as head football coach at Jackson State andlater as Texas Southern athletic director.

Walter Reed, president of the Central Mississippi Chapter, madethe presentation. “We were teammates at Jackson State and then wewere roommates. My roommate quit after preseason practice one dayand so did his. He hired me to coach with him at Jackson State in1965.”

Dr. Paige said the night was special for him. “Thank you forthis opportunity to come home and see a lot of my friends. T.B.Ellis, my coach (at Jackson State) is being honored. Also, one ofmy players, Verlon Biggs, is being honored.”

Certainly, it was a great night for sports and a great night forMississippi.